Making the Switch From Your Eyes to Your Ears

I'm working with a great student. We are talking about trusting his ears and how to make the switch. I think that's a big thing with students. The eyes seem much safer, and in some ways they are. But for improvisational music the ears are much more fun!!
You need to make the switch and trust your ears. You need to play melodies from your eyes and forget about the music. It's hard but it's important.

You need to learn the harmony and put it in your ears and use the knowledge in your ears to solo, not your eyes. The eyes can help but they're not the main part of all this. I think this is important to recognize!

I gave my student the C G7 exercise I give to students.

One bar each C next bar G7. Loop them.

YOU CAN ONLY PLAY C E AND G IN THE FIRST BAR AND THEN G B D F IN THE SECOND BAR. Play this is over and over and play all over your instrument! Be as creative as you can. Do this in all keys. It's one way to start paying attention to your ears. This will get easy and your ears will start to suggest notes.

But somehow when you are playing good solos, it means you have put a lot of trust in your ears. Get it?

The other thing you need to help your ears is good time. That puts everything in it's place and gives your ears something work with.

All of us need to take the steps to putting your ears more and more in charge. Singing is also a good way to do this. Forget solfeggi (or whatever you call it). Just sing.

What do you think of this?

Access: Anonymous


I struggle with this. I tend to let my eyes and my functional-harmony-theory-analytic-brain guide my choices. It feels safer, it feels more intelligent, it feels hipper. My ears may come up with an idea, then my eyes and my brain respond with "That's far too simple, we could never lower ourselves to play something so uncool as that! It lacks rich tensions like #11, b9, b13; it lacks complex syncopation; it lack extended functional substitutes." Then I trip over myself due to all that thinking and analysis, and a train wreck ensues, or at best, my time and execution suffer. It takes significant effort for me, and a leap of faith, to let my ears guide. Exercises such as this, that limit my choices and encourage my ears to make the best use of those choices, are very helpful.
I'm not sure I entirely agree about solfege, though. I find the syllables reinforce my ears' understanding of the relationships. Stefon Harris' presentation at PASIC 2015 began with having the audience sing and gesture with him, gestures that reinforced the (relative) feeling of the pitches' harmonic role: determined pointing for the root (Do) because it is decidedly home; a sweeping motion for the fifth (So) because it feels broad, open, expansive; a reaching motion for the major 7th (Ti) because it reaches for home. I found this very enlightening abd reinforcing, and I think solfege syllables can provide similar reinforcement. Or, is my analytic brain just trying to take control again?

I enjoyed Stefon's presentation AT PASIC 2015 too and also prefer solfege due to easier relationship recognition, but at the same time Tony has a point about "just sing."

At times, the solfege "gets in the way." Either I don't know which syllable to sing or I sing the incorrect one. This tends to happen when I'm just getting "into it," enjoying the fun improvising & learning, etc... and all of sudden....the "what the hell am I doing?" Thought-Bubble happens. Solfeggi, & singing fall apart in that moment. So I've been spending some time doing both.

Of course, there is a proper place in professional music for both ears and eyes. You won't make it if you can't read in today's professional world. Also, there is a lot of good learning that happens these days from books; you won't have access to that without reading skills. Then there are all the benefits of being literate in music theory, which can only be studied in ways that include written music.

But there was a time when a some jazz musicians were much like today's rockers, who have little knowledge of written music means. ...and they weren't necessarily that much worse off for it in some cases. Many, in my past, knew how to read but hadn't done it really in decades since they learned to play. It was common.

The bottom line was that, at the time I came up, there were a lot of professionals who strongly felt that jazz was an aural artform, with the exception of big band music (which, rightly or wrongly, they largely considered to be a commercial form of jazz, not the art music). They would often speak derisively of players who brought fake books on stage (which is common now). It was their opinion that those players had "not done their homework". It was also their opinion that, if your head is buried in a book, you won't be paying full attention to the music around you and will react less, thus communicate less. They would, in fact, not hire you back if you did that.

A very wise elder once told me something like this in one of my less stellar moments... "you see that C7 symbol on the page. well, there's a thousand ways to play that and you need to react to the one that the piano player chooses, not the one you imagine, so keep your damn ears open. It might not be what you expect. just because a note is part of a chord that matches the symbol on the page doesn't mean it's the best one to play."

Food for thought. For me, it shaped my entire concept of what I do. Others have a different aesthetic approach and get an excellent result. I don't personally care for what they do, but others do, so I can't say it's bad. I can only say that a solely intellectual approach to jazz is not appealing to me. Without ears, the heart remains disengaged.